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Spreadsheet for learning progress (1 Viewer)

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
As a new birder, picking up an identification guide with 642 British birds including all the rarities is pretty daunting. Especially when you consider all the different plumages for each species and then of course you want to try and learn the songs/calls as well... you start to do the maths and think "I've somehow got to learn 1500 'visuals' and God knows how many sounds". So far I have just been looking through the guide in no particular order and doing most of the learning while I'm actually out there birdwatching (which I think is the best way because you won't forget it so easily after standing underneath a tree for half an hour, neck aching from staring up, freezing hands trying to match the tiny hyperactive bird with a still image in the field guide 🤣). But I wanted a way that I could learn in a more organised way as well as making it less daunting.

So I have made a spreadsheet listing all the commonly seen species in Britain, organised into their families/groups with two checkboxes next to each that I can mark when I feel I have learnt the visuals and sounds to a level that I would feel confident successfully identifying them out in the field. This way, each day or week or month I can take a species or group of birds and focus on studying just them - much more manageable :).

Below is the spreadsheet for if anyone else wants to make something similar:

1618135372167.png
 

YuShan

Well-known member
Very cool!
I have a suggestion though. Perhaps you should colour the cells based on rarity. That way you can prioritise the common birds and once you know them well you move on to the rarer ones.
 

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
Very cool!
I have a suggestion though. Perhaps you should colour the cells based on rarity. That way you can prioritise the common birds and once you know them well you move on to the rarer ones.
That is an excellent idea! And you also gave me another - as well as highlighting common species I could mark the ones that are commonly found in my region as well so further prioritising what I'm likely to see!
 

Mono

Hi!
Staff member
Supporter
Europe
The problem isn't necessarily the learning it is the retention. You may only see the confusion species once in a blue moon are you going have retained the differences since the last time you saw the rarer one. You don't have to learn everything it is OK to refer back to a guide or to simply say "I don't know".
 

delia todd

If I said the wrong thing it was a Senior Moment
Staff member
Opus Editor
Supporter
Scotland
The problem isn't necessarily the learning it is the retention. You may only see the confusion species once in a blue moon are you going have retained the differences since the last time you saw the rarer one. You don't have to learn everything it is OK to refer back to a guide or to simply say "I don't know".
LOL Yeah.... that is my problem.... one has a whatever which the other lacks!!! Oh how I struggle to remember which has what!!!
 

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
The problem isn't necessarily the learning it is the retention. You may only see the confusion species once in a blue moon are you going have retained the differences since the last time you saw the rarer one. You don't have to learn everything it is OK to refer back to a guide or to simply say "I don't know".
I understand, that's why I have only put the common species into the spreadsheet as ones that I want to study and really learn and after YuShans suggestion I will be able to prioritise even more. My thinking is that if I can really learn the more common species then when I see something that I don't know then I'll realise perhaps more rare and then identify it through the field guide. That's the plan anyway lol
 

YuShan

Well-known member
I understand, that's why I have only put the common species into the spreadsheet as ones that I want to study and really learn and after YuShans suggestion I will be able to prioritise even more. My thinking is that if I can really learn the more common species then when I see something that I don't know then I'll realise perhaps more rare and then identify it through the field guide. That's the plan anyway lol
This is also what I do when I visit a new country/ continent where I know very few birds. Before the trip, I do a bit of a study of the common ones that I'm likely to encounter in the first 2-3 days, so I don't have to waste too much time going through my field guide back and forth just for the very common species. Then after 2-3 days in my trip I'm very familiar with all the common species and can focus on the more difficult to find ones, which will then stand out among the common ones.
 

JTweedie

Well-known member
My own approach when I was much younger was to try and identify new species as I came across them. Later, an approach that worked well was to look at the RSPB website (or other websites) for a particular reserve and look at the typical species they say they attract. In a given season, they might only mention around four species or thereabouts at each reserve and you can focus on trying to see those when you visit, although you can't guarantee they'll all be there plus there will almost certainly be other species. As you visit more and more places you'll soon find the number of species you've seen rising and you'll begin to get more confident at identifying them and the guidebooks won't seem so overwhelming.

Some reserves attract different types of birds, so it might be that an individual reserve might be good for focusing on ducks or another might be good for waders or seabirds. If the reserve has hides, they often have posters up of the common species found there, but note the season in case they're only there in winter or summer.

Visit websites or social media accounts that mention local rarities and if there's a bird near you that's been there for a few days, read up on what to look out for and go along and see if you can find it.

I think you'll find that you'll get proficient at identifying the most common birds quite quickly, including the songs/calls for many of them.
 

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
My own approach when I was much younger was to try and identify new species as I came across them. Later, an approach that worked well was to look at the RSPB website (or other websites) for a particular reserve and look at the typical species they say they attract. In a given season, they might only mention around four species or thereabouts at each reserve and you can focus on trying to see those when you visit, although you can't guarantee they'll all be there plus there will almost certainly be other species. As you visit more and more places you'll soon find the number of species you've seen rising and you'll begin to get more confident at identifying them and the guidebooks won't seem so overwhelming.

Some reserves attract different types of birds, so it might be that an individual reserve might be good for focusing on ducks or another might be good for waders or seabirds. If the reserve has hides, they often have posters up of the common species found there, but note the season in case they're only there in winter or summer.

Visit websites or social media accounts that mention local rarities and if there's a bird near you that's been there for a few days, read up on what to look out for and go along and see if you can find it.

I think you'll find that you'll get proficient at identifying the most common birds quite quickly, including the songs/calls for many of them.
What you said about identifying new species as you come across them is actually what I have been doing so far 😊 I definitely think it is the best way to learn but I would like to try and learn (or at least become more familiar with) species I haven't seen yet so when I do see something new I can at least have an idea of what family it belongs to or maybe even have a couple of names in mind of what it might be. But your suggestion about looking on reserve sites for what might be there is very useful, thank you.

When it comes to learning sounds I fear I am completely useless! Even the most common birds I am not confident with so that will be my biggest challenge.
 

kb57

Well-known member
Europe
I know its not easy in the middle of a pandemic, but the best way to learn is to go out with more experienced birders, such as from a local bird club - particularly for learning songs and calls, and the subtle clues to ID that you don't find in books. Then spend time on your own, ideally at the same sites, practising ID on the birds you've just learnt.
 

JTweedie

Well-known member
I agree, other people can definitely help, there are groups you can join that make trips to places of interest. But you don't even need to spend a day with other birders. If you see another birder you can always ask them what they're seeing - they could then point the birds out to you if you're unsure. I would say most birders are happy to share their knowledge.

As for songs, I wouldn't get too hung up on that. It'll come with experience and exposure to different birds. Perhaps focus on the songs and calls of birds that you see most days so you can confidently ID them by sound alone.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
As a new birder, picking up an identification guide with 642 British birds including all the rarities is pretty daunting. Especially when you consider all the different plumages for each species and then of course you want to try and learn the songs/calls as well... you start to do the maths and think "I've somehow got to learn 1500 'visuals' and God knows how many sounds". So far I have just been looking through the guide in no particular order and doing most of the learning while I'm actually out there birdwatching (which I think is the best way because you won't forget it so easily after standing underneath a tree for half an hour, neck aching from staring up, freezing hands trying to match the tiny hyperactive bird with a still image in the field guide 🤣). But I wanted a way that I could learn in a more organised way as well as making it less daunting.

So I have made a spreadsheet listing all the commonly seen species in Britain, organised into their families/groups with two checkboxes next to each that I can mark when I feel I have learnt the visuals and sounds to a level that I would feel confident successfully identifying them out in the field. This way, each day or week or month I can take a species or group of birds and focus on studying just them - much more manageable :).

Below is the spreadsheet for if anyone else wants to make something similar:

View attachment 1379015

Knowing what I know now, there are quite a few things I would do differently in order to speed up the learning process, but one of the things I think I had right was not spending time learning the calls. When you have other things going in your life, as just about everyone does, time is limited; and learning how to use a camera, being out watching birds and taking pictures, learning how to photo edit and then actually photo editing are all time consuming activities. So for me, I sacrificed being sat at home learning calls in order to spend more time out with my camera and watching birds.

In my short space of time watching birds, 'say around a year, I could now instantly recognise the sound of a long tailed tit, a blue tit, a goldfinch, a wheatear, a blackcap, a marsh tit, a grasshopper warbler, a willow warbler, a pied flycatcher, a nuthatch, a song thrush, a mistle thrush, a goldcrest, a skylark, a meadow pipit and pretty much every other bird I have seen. The only one I would not recognise is a greenfinch and that's because every time I have seen them they've been tucked away in trees and there have been other birds around them and so I've never been clear on which is the greenfinch, and since I've gotten better with the calls I haven't seen a greenfinch to be able to nail it down by process of elimination.

It helps that I have a good memory, but if you're interested, which clearly you are; you will find that you very quickly get used to the habits and sounds of birds due to watching them through your binoculars and camera trying to get a picture. I'm not so sure you really need to learn the calls unless you're looking for specific birds. In the event a bird turns up that I haven't heard before, I'll know immediately that this is a new bird and then by waiting and watching it'll be etched into my memory which bird it is and the sound it makes when it comes into view.

Perhaps it's because I'm an accountant by trade and I spend my working days with spreadsheets and putting numbers in boxes that I crave not being restricted by tools designed as control mechanisms in my free time.

Given time limitations, I would learn the basics of the camera, decide upon which settings are for you, learn the basics of photo editing, spend as much time watching birds as possible, learn how to keep a camera steady ('takes practice and effort), learn how to get close to birds, and most of all enjoy it. By doing all of that, anyone with a decent memory will know which birds they've seen and what sounds they make without needing to log them.

I suppose these boards are for honest discussions, and so although I know the following is going to sound critical I'll give my view anyway: making lists and trying to control the situation through spreadsheets seems to me to be defeating the purpose of being among nature and in the event you have a camera then it's an attempt to turn what is essentially a creative pursuit into a logical one.

I do appreciate that you may have no plans to buy a camera and so you have a bit more time, but I would still go for being out as much as possible with my binoculars rather than being sat at home compiling lists and spreadsheets and you may be surprised at how much you learn in a short space of time through experience. If your memory fails you and you can't decipher which birds make which sounds, then lists and spreadsheets may be helpful but it would be a begrudging last resort for me.

Edited to add: long story short, if your goal is to enjoy watching birds and learn about them in the process, your better bet could well be to maximise your time out with your binoculars and place faith in your memory.
 
Last edited:

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
Knowing what I know now, there are quite a few things I would do differently in order to speed up the learning process, but one of the things I think I had right was not spending time learning the calls. When you have other things going in your life, as just about everyone does, time is limited; and learning how to use a camera, being out watching birds and taking pictures, learning how to photo edit and then actually photo editing are all time consuming activities. So for me, I sacrificed being sat at home learning calls in order to spend more time out with my camera and watching birds.

In my short space of time watching birds, 'say around a year, I could now instantly recognise the sound of a long tailed tit, a blue tit, a goldfinch, a wheatear, a blackcap, a marsh tit, a grasshopper warbler, a willow warbler, a pied flycatcher, a nuthatch, a song thrush, a mistle thrush, a goldcrest, a skylark, a meadow pipit and pretty much every other bird I have seen. The only one I would not recognise is a greenfinch and that's because every time I have seen them they've been tucked away in trees and there have been other birds around them and so I've never been clear on which is the greenfinch, and since I've gotten better with the calls I haven't seen a greenfinch to be able to nail it down by process of elimination.

It helps that I have a good memory, but if you're interested, which clearly you are; you will find that you very quickly get used to the habits and sounds of birds due to watching them through your binoculars and camera trying to get a picture. I'm not so sure you really need to learn the calls unless you're looking for specific birds. In the event a bird turns up that I haven't heard before, I'll know immediately that this is a new bird and then by waiting and watching it'll be etched into my memory which bird it is and the sound it makes when it comes into view.

Perhaps it's because I'm an accountant by trade and I spend my working days with spreadsheets and putting numbers in boxes that I crave not being restricted by tools designed as control mechanisms in my free time.

Given time limitations, I would learn the basics of the camera, decide upon which settings are for you, learn the basics of photo editing, spend as much time watching birds as possible, learn how to keep a camera steady ('takes practice and effort), learn how to get close to birds, and most of all enjoy it. By doing all of that, anyone with a decent memory will know which birds they've seen and what sounds they make without needing to log them.

I suppose these boards are for honest discussions, and so although I know the following is going to sound critical I'll give my view anyway: making lists and trying to control the situation through spreadsheets seems to me to be defeating the purpose of being among nature and in the event you have a camera then it's an attempt to turn what is essentially a creative pursuit into a logical one.

I do appreciate that you may have no plans to buy a camera and so you have a bit more time, but I would still go for being out as much as possible with my binoculars rather than being sat at home compiling lists and spreadsheets and you may be surprised at how much you learn in a short space of time through experience. If your memory fails you and you can't decipher which birds make which sounds, then lists and spreadsheets may be helpful but it would be a begrudging last resort for me.

Edited to add: long story short, if your goal is to enjoy watching birds and learn about them in the process, your better bet could well be to maximise your time out with your binoculars and place faith in your memory.
Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough reply. I am not doing any photography but I do appreciate what you mean about spending time out watching versus spending time looking in a book and filling out a spreadsheet.

With regards to the calls, I am not so concerned about being able to identify birds from sounds alone just yet, I know that will take a lot of time and I'll probably never learn every song and call. With the visuals I'm good, but I find the sounds so difficult to learn. The amount of time I've spent trying to find what I thought is a new bird only to find its something as common as a blackbird is ridiculous 😂 and yet I'll do it again and again. I'd have thought after a few times I would learn but my memory for sounds is terrible!
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough reply. I am not doing any photography but I do appreciate what you mean about spending time out watching versus spending time looking in a book and filling out a spreadsheet.

With regards to the calls, I am not so concerned about being able to identify birds from sounds alone just yet, I know that will take a lot of time and I'll probably never learn every song and call. With the visuals I'm good, but I find the sounds so difficult to learn. The amount of time I've spent trying to find what I thought is a new bird only to find its something as common as a blackbird is ridiculous 😂 and yet I'll do it again and again. I'd have thought after a few times I would learn but my memory for sounds is terrible!

Well, assuming your memory is terrible then you may need them as a last resort.

Another consideration, however, is that for every minute you spend thinking about your 'terrible memory' and compiling lists in order to circumvent that, you're missing a minute actually watching a bird such as the magical little skylark and that's something you won't forget in a hurry!

Perhaps in the context of watching these little birds with their curious little habits and beautiful sounds, it doesn't matter that much what you remember, and there's always the prospect that in the event you keep telling yourself you have a terrible memory like a self-fulfilling prophecy you will have a terrible memory.

Who knows, it's your way to go. My opinion is that watching YouTube and writing lists is no substitute for actually being out in nature and watching. There's always the chance you have loads of time and so you can do one during the day and the other at night.
 

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
Well, assuming your memory is terrible then you may need them as a last resort.

Another consideration, however, is that for every minute you spend thinking about your 'terrible memory' and compiling lists in order to circumvent that, you're missing a minute actually watching a bird such as the magical little skylark and that's something you won't forget in a hurry!

Perhaps in the context of watching these little birds with their curious little habits and beautiful sounds, it doesn't matter that much what you remember, and there's always the prospect that in the event you keep telling yourself you have a terrible memory like a self-fulfilling prophecy you will have a terrible memory.

Who knows, it's your way to go. My opinion is that watching YouTube and writing lists is no substitute for actually being out in nature and watching. There's always the chance you have loads of time and so you can do one during the day and the other at night.
You might be right about me telling myself I have a terrible memory for sounds. With some birds I hear, I think I know what they are. Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I'm wrong and it's the times I'm wrong that then makes me doubt myself when I hear the next bird and think I know what it is. There are a couple I feel confident with like a chiffchaff, the ticking of a wren, the 'tea-cher' of a great tit... So hopefully the rest will come with time.
 

leonardo_simon

Well-known member
As a new birder, picking up an identification guide with 642 British birds including all the rarities is pretty daunting. Especially when you consider all the different plumages for each species and then of course you want to try and learn the songs/calls as well... you start to do the maths and think "I've somehow got to learn 1500 'visuals' and God knows how many sounds". So far I have just been looking through the guide in no particular order and doing most of the learning while I'm actually out there birdwatching (which I think is the best way because you won't forget it so easily after standing underneath a tree for half an hour, neck aching from staring up, freezing hands trying to match the tiny hyperactive bird with a still image in the field guide 🤣). But I wanted a way that I could learn in a more organised way as well as making it less daunting.

So I have made a spreadsheet listing all the commonly seen species in Britain, organised into their families/groups with two checkboxes next to each that I can mark when I feel I have learnt the visuals and sounds to a level that I would feel confident successfully identifying them out in the field. This way, each day or week or month I can take a species or group of birds and focus on studying just them - much more manageable :).

Below is the spreadsheet for if anyone else wants to make something similar:

View attachment 1379015
I started out using the "RSPB pocket guide to British Birds" for the first year or so and carried it with me when I went out. Found that very helpful as much of the rest too subtle at first. Has the most common 200 species and much more manageable than the big field guides (which I had at home)
 

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
I purchased the RSPB Handbook of British Birds a few weeks ago. Before that I was carrying around WildGuides British Birds which is about the size and weight of an Argos catalogue 😂 the RSPB guide is much nicer to take out in the field and my WildGuides stays at home. It's also nice to have the two because the RSPB is illustrated and WildGuides is photographic. I have the Merlin app on my phone too which I use more for the calls/songs and if I want to double check my identification with photographs while I'm out.
 

PaulCountyDurham

Well-known member
United Kingdom
You might be right about me telling myself I have a terrible memory for sounds. With some birds I hear, I think I know what they are. Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I'm wrong and it's the times I'm wrong that then makes me doubt myself when I hear the next bird and think I know what it is. There are a couple I feel confident with like a chiffchaff, the ticking of a wren, the 'tea-cher' of a great tit... So hopefully the rest will come with time.

I think it's an obvious and natural thing that anyone starting out watching birds will not immediately recognise the calls, but you will be surprised by how quickly you learn as a result of watching them and taking an interest. It will take a bit of time, that's an unavoidable learning curve, but it will come; and more than likely quicker than you expect.

The reason I replied is that I made what I think is a similar mistake. I managed to get lost in the technical details of the camera for a short while and it was completely pointless and only served to chase my own tail for no real gain, when I should have been out watching birds.

I really think it matters much more to learn how to get close to birds than writing lists because you'll see things that will fascinate you by getting closer.

As an example, I posted a picture of a meadow pipit yesterday that was barely cropped because I was so close. These are pretty sensitive birds and spot you a mile off before you see them. I was on the moors and walked around for a couple of hours. There's a beautiful stream in the middle of the moors and on a nice day it's simply an outstanding walk. As you can imagine, there's not much cover on the moors! I took a gentle stroll around down to the stream and meadow pipits were flying off everywhere before I even saw them in the undergrowth. I then bumped into a couple of wheatear as I walked who also spotted me before I spotted them. They didn't fly very far, but I tried a few things to get close such as: waiting patiently for them to fly my way, trying to get behind any cover possible, trying to somehow get behind them; but they're not idiots, they know you're there when there's not much cover. So, I walked back up towards the road and there's a shed half way up. There's a lot of grass around this shed, crags/rocks and a steep drop down on one side. I'd seen meadow pipits scurrying about on the grass around there quite a few times and so I found a verge that I could get behind and hoped they'd fly over the top of the steep drop and the rocks and pop up on the grass. I waited 10 minutes at the most and two meadow pipits popped up on the grass from over the steep drop. I was behind a grass verge and they couldn't see me and so they just played around for a bit: I was 15 metres away at the most. The picture was taken when I was lying down on my front. And, as a bonus for thinking about how I'm going to get close, I'd just finished taking pictures of the meadow pipits and a pair of wheatear popped up over the same steep drop and didn't sense I was there when I was lying down watching them and taking pictures of them.

Long story short: walk around looking for birds and you'll limit your chances but think about how you're going to get close and try something different to do that, and you'll get your rewards. That's what I think anyone with an interest in birds should be thinking about and putting into practice rather than writing lists. 'Doesn't work with all birds mind you. I've tried all ways to get close to a kestrel but I reckon you'll need the deception capabilities of the British Government before D-Day and the craft of the SAS to pull that off!
 

Mother_of_birds

Active member
United Kingdom
I think it's an obvious and natural thing that anyone starting out watching birds will not immediately recognise the calls, but you will be surprised by how quickly you learn as a result of watching them and taking an interest. It will take a bit of time, that's an unavoidable learning curve, but it will come; and more than likely quicker than you expect.

The reason I replied is that I made what I think is a similar mistake. I managed to get lost in the technical details of the camera for a short while and it was completely pointless and only served to chase my own tail for no real gain, when I should have been out watching birds.

I really think it matters much more to learn how to get close to birds than writing lists because you'll see things that will fascinate you by getting closer.

As an example, I posted a picture of a meadow pipit yesterday that was barely cropped because I was so close. These are pretty sensitive birds and spot you a mile off before you see them. I was on the moors and walked around for a couple of hours. There's a beautiful stream in the middle of the moors and on a nice day it's simply an outstanding walk. As you can imagine, there's not much cover on the moors! I took a gentle stroll around down to the stream and meadow pipits were flying off everywhere before I even saw them in the undergrowth. I then bumped into a couple of wheatear as I walked who also spotted me before I spotted them. They didn't fly very far, but I tried a few things to get close such as: waiting patiently for them to fly my way, trying to get behind any cover possible, trying to somehow get behind them; but they're not idiots, they know you're there when there's not much cover. So, I walked back up towards the road and there's a shed half way up. There's a lot of grass around this shed, crags/rocks and a steep drop down on one side. I'd seen meadow pipits scurrying about on the grass around there quite a few times and so I found a verge that I could get behind and hoped they'd fly over the top of the steep drop and the rocks and pop up on the grass. I waited 10 minutes at the most and two meadow pipits popped up on the grass from over the steep drop. I was behind a grass verge and they couldn't see me and so they just played around for a bit: I was 15 metres away at the most. The picture was taken when I was lying down on my front. And, as a bonus for thinking about how I'm going to get close, I'd just finished taking pictures of the meadow pipits and a pair of wheatear popped up over the same steep drop and didn't sense I was there when I was lying down watching them and taking pictures of them.

Long story short: walk around looking for birds and you'll limit your chances but think about how you're going to get close and try something different to do that, and you'll get your rewards. That's what I think anyone with an interest in birds should be thinking about and putting into practice rather than writing lists. 'Doesn't work with all birds mind you. I've tried all ways to get close to a kestrel but I reckon you'll need the deception capabilities of the British Government before D-Day and the craft of the SAS to pull that off!
That's a cool story.

Also you should come to Norwich if you want to get close to a kestral - the ones I've seen perched have let me get right under the tree they were in and sat their happily preening while I circled to get a look from all angles.
 

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